Questioning the composition and structure of the Cauvery Water Management Authority, experts say the recently-constituted river basin organisation, dominated by engineers, could fall short in properly governing the basin.
Without inter-disciplinary professional strength, the authority wouldn't be able to address the multi-dimensional challenges of the river basin, they said.
Acting on the Supreme Court's direction, the Centre constituted the Authority on June 1 to address the dispute between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry on sharing the river's water.
A monograph -- "Conflict Over Cauvery Waters: Imperatives for Innovative Policy Options" -- written by Nilanjan Ghosh, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Jaya Thakur of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), has argued that the formation of the Authority based on the final award in 2007 of the Cauvery Water Tribunal (CWT) could end up as a missed opportunity.
"...by adhering to the CWT-recommended institutional structure and disciplinary competence of the authority, the Centre might miss the opportunity to internalise the holistic and interdisciplinary paradigm of river basin governance," it said.
Bandyopadhyay, an ORF Distinguished Fellow and former Professor at IIM-Calcutta, welcomed the formation of the river basin authority, but pointed out the "composition and structure of the board needs to have the interdisciplinary professional strength to respond to multi-dimensional challenges of river basin governance".
"The board has a good strength in traditional hydrology and irrigation engineering. But professional diversity has to be brought into its membership. Without this, the basic objective of the board will not be served," Bandyopadhyay told IANS.
Echoing him, Ghosh, an ORF Senior Fellow and Head of Economics, said the Cauvery river basin "cannot be governed without professionals from natural and social science disciplines" in the constituted Authority.
"The Authority, full of engineers, does not make any sense. A river is defined as water, energy, bio-diversity, sediment (webs) and it serves broader ecological and social functions. It just cannot be treated as a stock of resource for human consumption.
"Unfortunately, the composition of the Authority does not recognise that," Ghosh told IANS.
The experts said river basin governance does not simply constitute managing the flow of the river or diversion of water for irrigation or services to city people.
Apart from the property rights issue in disputes relating to sharing the Cauvery water, Ghosh said there was an economic perspective and the root of the conflict lay "in inherent incentivisation through increased minimum support prices of a water-consuming crop like paddy".
According to their study, the Supreme Court order has opened a range of possibilities not only for conflict-resolution over trans-boundary waters, but also for better understanding of integrated approaches to their governance.
"The idea behind the ruling appears to be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paula" by reducing 14.75 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) of water for Tamil Nadu and providing this to Karnataka. Yet, it recognises a bigger global phenomenon of inter-sectoral water conflicts: Agriculture versus urban-industrial water demand," the study said.
After allocating water among the southern states, the apex court pointed out that the entire basin and water must be managed in an integrated manner in view of competing use of water by the various stakeholders, said Shashi Shekhar, former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.
"The body has to be multi-disciplinary to ensure efficient use of water. The river has been adequately engineered. Unfortunately, the manner in which the Authority has been created is an engineering approach," Shekhar told IANS.
Elaborating, Bandyopadhyay pointed out every river has "to have an allocation for eco-system services which have many uses" and taking out any amount water from its stream "changes the ecological status of rivers".
Providing for irrigation and supplying water to the cities has to be derived by taking out from the river flows but it is to be considered that the same water was also performing some other ecosystem services which cannot be maintained at the same level, he said, adding that communities or people who had been depending on those ecosystem services are now deprived.
"Environmental flow of the river has been mismanaged. A percentage of the flow of a river left for the ecosystems does not solve the problem and it continues to create the problem of deprivation of communities depending on ecosystem services like fishery or navigation," Bandyopadhyay said.
Bandyopadhyay and Ghosh stressed that all stakeholders have to "be brought in to agree on an amount of flow to support ecosystems providing a new level of services in which gaining and losing parties will agree to a particular hydrograph of the river and benefit-sharing methods".
(Bappaditya Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)